It may have been a spoonful of sugar for the family, yet it always left a bitter taste on my tongue. As we sat to a steaming bowl of pasta, it would show up uninvited but never unexpected. With each passing week, another phone call announced a new wedding engagement. Come lunchtime every Sunday, my grandmother, Nonna Carmela, couldn’t help but ask me again.
“When you bring good Italian girl a casa?” she inquired, lathering my naked noodles in tomato sauce, shrouding their embarrassment. “I no can wait forever.”
Garlic and spice punched my nose. My parents chuckled, expecting a response. There was nowhere to hide in the crossfire of meddlesome gazes.
“Soon, once I’m finished university, I promise.” I prayed my cheeks weren’t as red as the fettuccine.
“Yeah ok, wit’ Master’s, you be in school til I die,” Nonna sighed with a flourish of her arthritic wrist. “You wan’ parmigiano?”
Once the weekly gossip about the relatives resumed, relief slowly escaped my lungs. It was excruciating to swallow my shame with mouthfuls of homemade food.
While modern families are made for comical, American television, the conveyor belt of tradition rolled onwards through the kitchens of east-end Montreal. From the diploma to the mortgage to the marriage, it dragged my generation down the same checklist as our parents’. As my cousins and their long-term boyfriends waltzed into adulthood, I danced alone. After all, Italian wedding halls weren’t accustomed to two grooms steering the tarantella circle.
When the doctors drained her abdomen of fluid for the second time that month, I went to visit Nonna at Santa Cabrini Hospital. I thought it peculiar that the government’s language police had spared all the Italian signage in the hallways and bedrooms.
“B’cause we built this city,” she wheezed into her oxygen mask. “Entire life they treat us like dirt. Work us to death. At least, they let us meet God wit’ dignity. In our ’ospital.”
Nonna struggled to speak. I could hear so in her voice. We both feared there wouldn’t be many more Sundays together.
I showed her photographs of Monet’s paintings for my thesis project. I hoped the floral pastels would lull her nerves.
“Y’know who was ’ere before?” she declared without warning. “Pierre. Good man, so kind to come.”
Pierre had nursed my grandfather at the hospice in his final months, and she had never forgotten.
“Y’know…” she interjected. “Pierre, ’e likes boys.”
My head shot up from the textbook, with a stare that did little to conceal the alarm seeping through my fractured façade.
“I realize… liking boys… I t’ink it’s ok. It’s ’ow Pierre was, ah… born, yeah? An’ I still love ’im… jus’ like a gran’son, I do.”
I suddenly found myself matching her heavy breath. Perhaps she believed it was her first and final opportunity to broach this subject.
Her silver hair seized the sunlight as it slipped from the sky. There was a piercing gleam in her eyes, a bright glow desperate to exhume the secret I had long ago buried in the deepest, darkest crypt of my heart. This was it, the moment of our mutual deliverance. She sung to my caged spirit. I simply had to… reach out… take the key… and…
“Oh, Nonna, h-here’s the picture. I, uh, think you’ll really like this one.”
Fingers trembling, I sprang from my seat and dropped the book on her lap. I rambled on about the art to distract myself from my own cowardice. Nonna stifled her tears of disappointment.
I pretended not to notice.
“Another Timeless Italian Tradition” was first published in Here and Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing, edited by Licia Canton (Longbridge Books 2021).
Anthony Portulese’s writing has been featured on the Short Story Show podcast and in Rutgers Art Review. He has degrees in Art History and Law.